How do you go about changing a seemingly endless cycle of obstructed access to education in a developing country? And how do you do it via a mobile app?

That’s what Montreal startup Decode Global is trying to do.

Decode Global is a Canadian incubator of mobile apps for social change, and the goliath problem they’re addressing is how to keep girls in India from dropping out of school at 13.

“In the developing world the biggest correlation between a country and improving their economic situation is empowering their whole workforce,” said Angelique Mannella, CEO and founder of Decode Global. “This includes keeping girls in school and keeping women working.”

The problem is that around the age of puberty and the onset of menstruation, there’s a problem with easy access to feminine hygiene products for girls. What results is a disproportionate amount of girls dropping out of school and the workforce at 13 compared to boys.

Decode Global’s five-year plan is in collaboration with New Delhi’s Boond, an Indian company that establishes supply chains of development products. These are essential products like water filters, mosquito nets and solar-powered lamps, which are required in areas of the world that don’t have electrical infrastructure.

The plan aims to empower women to become entrepreneurs by selling feminine hygiene products to other rural women via a mobile phone app to be developed by Decode Global. The app also acts as a platform to provide essential health and sanitary education to these illiterate women.

“What if we train women to become entrepreneurs, we establish a supply chain of feminine hygiene products and we equip them with a mobile phone to be used as a tool to help them sell their products and also communicate information in a discreet manner about the benefits of feminine products,” said Mannella.

Despite the fact that some of these rural Indian communities have no electricity or running water, the majority of people have cell phones. In fact, there are 225 million female mobile phone subscribers in India. Without electricity they have access to solar-powered cell phone chargers.

Furthermore, mobile phones are a discreet medium that can be used by the women. Social taboos on the subjects of menstruation and puberty largely rule out open conversation and education, let alone men trying to sell the products.

So Decode Global is trying to empower these women to become the entrepreneurs, use their phones and the app as their tools and create social change. Once the mobile platform is well established, the company hopes to move on to other products like birth control.

“You have to find out how to create supply and demand, how to involve women and empower them to solve problems,” said Mannella. “We’re taking bits and pieces and putting them together to help maximize the impact on a situation that affects 50 per cent of the population.”

Research for the project begins in December and it will require a multi-pronged solution. Manella emphasizes that change won’t come instantly but the project is certainly a start.

“It’s development work: we’re trying to change social norms; women are learning to become entrepreneurs for the first time,” she said. “We’re listening to the women and making sure whatever we’re doing for the app is most effective for them.”

So far the collaboration between Decode Global and Boond is already benefitting from well-known sponsors like MasterCard, Nokia and UN Women Singapore. These sponsors will be providing financial support, mobile phones and public engagement assistance.

First thing’s first though. Research begins in December and Decode Global must establish a baseline to find out the mobile habits of the women. They’ll conduct focus groups to see what to prioritize first while starting outreach and awareness for the project.

It will be a long community engagement process says Mannella, but one that will bring about change.

Written by Ildar Khakimov with files from Joseph Czikk

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